2017-04-12 / Voice at the Shore

Elected officials, law enforcement and clergy stand together at local rally against hate

By ELLEN WEISMAN STRENGER
Voice shore editor

How do we, as a united community, respond to and counter ongoing anti-Jewish and anti- Muslim incidents?

That was the central question addressed by the many elected officials, law enforcement representatives, and faith leaders who spoke at “Interfaith Solidarity Against Hate,” at Beth El Synagogue on Thursday morning, March 16. The event was sponsored by the local Jewish Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) and Bridge of Faith, an interfaith organization chaired by Muslim leader and Atlantic City community activist Kaleem Shabazz, who planned the event.

Speakers representing law enforcement expressed their unwavering commitment to opposing hate. Newly-appointed Atlantic City Prosecutor Damon Tyner, who had been sworn into to his new position only the day before, assured those present that “those out there with hatred in their heart and wishing to do harm” would be “prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness representative John Paige encouraged people to call in incidents, either to his office or to local law enforcement.

“People can be a little bashful to report these incidents when they occur,” he said. But it is imperative that they do make the call.

In New Jersey, said Paige, most incidents threatening both Jews and Muslims take place in the northern part of the state.

“Interfaith groups like this help to overcome hate,” he said.

He further suggested that houses of worship protect themselves by training their “greeters” and others who are apt to spot newcomers on how to recognize suspicious activity.

State Assemblyman Chris Brown and Margate Mayor Mike Becker, who are not Jewish, expressed their feelings of kinship with the Jewish people. Both said they had Jewish grandparents as well as other family members who are Jewish.

Brown said his grandmother, “a Hungarian Jew,” was buried in the Mt. Carmel cemetery that was recently vandalized, along with other family members, some of whom had tombstones affected by the vandalism. Brown also said he has an Israeli cousin who is a prominent violinist there.

In addition to sharing his Jewish family history, Mayor Becker told those assembled: “I came here with a message: We’ve got to find a way to stop hate. All of us have much more in common than we have differences. Let’s all work hard together to stop the nonsense going on in the world.”

Thelma Witherspoon of the Fellowship of Churches sang “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me,” and others joined in. “I’m glad we are engaged in these discussions,” she said, adding: “It’s one thing to talk about our brother…but we need to look at ourselves to make sure we are not doing that thing that we dislike.”

Many speakers told stories of their own personal experiences with hate. Mayor Don Guardian shared a personal memory of traveling to Croatia as a teenager in the 1970s with his father, a Croatian immigrant. In one town he visited, he was impressed to see an eclectic cultural mix of people that included Muslims and Jews, living and working side by side. Yet 20 years later, people of different ethnicities were killing each other in Croatia. “We have to be vigilant to keep the hate out,” he stressed.

Kirk Wisemayer, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Atlantic and Cape May Counties, agreed. His mother, who was an immigrant, taught his family that “we have to be advocates for other new immigrants,” said Wisemayer. In a world that is “moving right, towards discrimination,” he said, “our role is to be voices for those who would be discriminated against.”

Hazzan Myers of Shirat Hayam spoke as a representative of the Downbeach Ministerium, an interfaith group that works together to meet community needs as they arise. Myers told of an incident that changed his life—when, as a fifth grader, he came home to find a swastika drawn on his driveway along with his name, saying that he was a dirty Jew. Myers said he didn’t understand what this meant until his parents explained it to him.

“It was one of the guiding experiences of my life,” he noted. “We need to teach all of our young people—because that’s where it begins—that there is no place for hate in our country.”

Rabbi Gordon Geller, representing Bridge of Faith, stressed the fact that an attack upon immigrants or any minority group was tantamount to an attack against America. “We are all immigrants. This is part of the fabric of our democracy,” he said. When a Jewish institution or a mosque is threatened with a bomb scare, he noted, “it is not Jews or Muslims who are threatened, it’s America.” 

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